Thursday, May 23, 2013

Bogus Criticism of the Common Core

Here's a popular post at The Atlantic, criticizing the Common Core math standards.  The author approvingly quotes an email from a math teacher:
I am teaching the traditional algorithm this year to my third graders, but was told next year with Common Core I will not be allowed to. They should use mental math, and other strategies, to add. Crazy! I am so outraged that I have decided my child is NOT going to public schools until Common Core falls flat.
They can't use the standard algorithm, but instead must resort to "mental math" and "other strategies"?  Hmmmm... let's take a look at the standards for third grade, available at
CCSS.Math.Content.3.NBT.A.2 Fluently add and subtract within 1000 using strategies and algorithms based on place value, properties of operations, and/or the relationship between addition and subtraction.
Please notice that this does not forbid the "standard algorithm" for addition.  Rather, as I read it, this means that the standard algorithm can be taught, but it must be taught with reference to place value, properties of operations, and/or the relationship between addition and subtraction.  When we, for example, do \(17+24\) we recognize that that 17 is composed of one ten and seven ones, while 24 is composed of two tens and four ones.  We can add numbers in whatever order we like without changing the result, but if we are doing the standard algorithm we begin by adding the four and the seven, \(4+7\), which gives us 11, or one ten and one one.  We then add the tens (one from 17, the two tens from 24, and the ten from 11) to get \(10 + 20 + 10\) to get 40.  Our final result is 41.  This can be shown in the standard algorithm using the standard way of writing things it (with one number on top of the other, lining up the tens and the ones), but we don't use terms like "carry" and  we make sure to remind students that the first 1 in eleven is not "1" but rather "1 ten."

So, I don't think the teachers complaint is even slightly legitimate.  However, I do think it points to a real question - will the common core be implemented correctly?  Will teachers get the misimpression that they must stop teaching the standard algorithm?  As far as I can tell, the mathematics core standards are far better than the prior standards, but will the standards be used in a way that will improve the quality of math education?